5 Ways to Drive Your Career Development

This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.

Feel like there’s no way to advance at your company? Or like your boss doesn’t support your development? Are you unsure where to even start?

There are more opportunities to progress in your career than you might think — especially if you’re willing to drive the conversation.

1. Explore where you want to go next in your career.

Many people assume that there’s only one way to develop — moving up a clear hierarchy for your role from less advanced to more advanced. But there are many ways to grow, including by changing up the type of work you do.

To identify possibilities, start by thinking through what you’re most interested in pursuing. You don’t have to plot your entire future — though it’s fine if you do. Just get a sense of a skill you’d like to build or a role you’d like to explore.

To spark ideas, ask yourself questions like:

  • What new skills would I like to learn? What existing skills would I like to master?
  • What type of work would I like to do and in what kind of environment?
  • What difference would I like to make and for whom?
  • What level of responsibility would I like to have?
  • Who does work I find fascinating (inside and outside my organization)? What skills are important in those roles?
  • How could I bring even greater value to my organization through my own growth? What skills are in demand here? (Ask if you don’t know.)

You can also connect with others to learn about possible growth paths and opportunities in your organization (and beyond). Ask peers and mentors in roles you find interesting how they got to where they are in their careers. Ask your manager or HR about various ways people can advance in your organization.

As you choose a goal to pursue, keep in mind that you’ll be more likely to get support if your goal dovetails with team and company needs.

2. Write out your specific development goal and potential steps to meet it.

Your development goal might be a single skill that will take two months to build or a coveted promotion that will take two years (or something in between). Regardless, you can’t achieve it without clearly defining your destination and the steps it will take to get there. And you definitely can’t rely on your busy manager to articulate all of that for you.

Write down your goal. To help you flesh it out and see the path ahead:

  • List where you are now (in terms of role and skills) and where you want to be using the formula “from … to …” For example, your goal might be a promotion “from sales associate to senior salesperson.” That transition might require building your skills to move:
    • From using your team’s new sales software to mastering the software.
    • From helping to close enterprise-level deals to closing them on your own.
    • From deepening relationships with existing customers to attracting new ones.
  • List steps you might take to get from your current state to your goal state — including any support you might need. You may not know all the specific steps yet and that’s OK — you still need input from your manager. But you can sketch out possibilities, such as:
    • Cross-train with Michael in IT to learn advanced functions of the new sales software.
    • Write a pitch to a prospective enterprise customer, with a round of feedback from your manager.
    • Represent your company at an industry conference where you can gather new sales leads.

3. Talk with your manager to shape your development plan — and align on what success looks like.

Plenty of people feel nervous about bringing up their development to their manager, wondering, What if they think I’m not happy with my job? Or What if they don’t want to help me — or don’t think I’m capable? But most managers do want to help and will be open to a conversation if you frame it as a chance for you both to gain something.

Let your boss know ahead of time that you’d like to meet about your development in a way that signals you don’t expect them to lead the conversation (e.g., “In our next 1-on-1, I’d like to get your input on some ideas I have for my professional development and how I can make an even greater impact”). Depending on your comfort level with your boss and how much they know about where you want to go, you could share your notes from No. 2 in advance or talk through them when you meet.

During the conversation, write down everything you and your boss discuss and decide on, including:

  • Your goal and required skills: Does your boss think your goal is realistic? Do they support it? Are you aligned on the skills you’ll need to reach it? Where do they think you are with those skills — and where do you need to be in order to advance? Adjust your goal and skills as needed based on your boss’s input.
  • Steps and milestones: Share the step ideas you wrote down in No. 2. Ask your boss, “How would you change what I have? What actions are missing?” and adjust accordingly. Also, see if you can identify milestones for you to meet — or at least a first milestone to work toward — to help you build momentum.
  • Expectations: For example, you and your boss might have different ideas about what it means to “master” your sales software or to close a deal “on your own.” Leadership coach Maria “Sully” Sullivan says, “I see this all the time: You think you’re exceeding expectations, and the boss thinks you’re doing the job. Neither of you has taken the time to really dive into what ‘great’ looks like.” Don’t make that mistake.
  • Opportunities and support: What opportunities does your boss see on the horizon for you to step up for the team while also building your desired skills? Support could include funding to attend a conference, time to fit software training into your schedule, your manager making time to review proposals you’ve written, or the chance to shadow a senior-level peer to learn more about an area where you’d like to improve.

What you’ve written down is the substance of your development plan — and now you’ve got your boss’s buy-in! Agree on when you’ll follow up next to gauge your progress on the plan.

4. Continuously ask for performance feedback — and track your progress.

By definition, you don’t see your own blind spots. And it can be tough to objectively gauge your progress on a goal as you passionately work toward it. So take advantage of your boss, peers, and other colleagues to help you gauge how you’re really doing and steadily improve at the skills in your development plan.

If you just ask “How am I doing?” you’ll likely get an unhelpful “Fine!” Instead, be as specific as possible in your request for feedback. For example:

  • “I’d love your input on my revised sales pitch. Will it do enough to grab people’s attention? I’m most concerned that something is missing in the data visualization — what could I be overlooking?”
  • “I struggled on the call to address all of the customer’s concerns. How could I have handled the conversation more effectively?”

Document all the feedback you receive in a place where you can easily review it. Look for patterns in where you tend to do well and where you struggle so you know where to focus your efforts.

Also note the steps you took and the development milestones you reached — to help you see what you still need to accomplish to get to the next level and to help you communicate your progress to your manager.

5. Set regular reminders to talk with your manager about your development and agree on next steps.

It’s easy for you and your boss to let development conversations fall by the wayside when things get hectic. But staying in sync is critical — so you can follow through on your plan or course-correct if things aren’t going as expected. Check-ins are also a good chance to be sure your manager is giving you the support they said they would (and to discuss new opportunities).

Review your development plan together in 1-on-1s or in dedicated meetings, and take notes to record details of the conversation that you both can refer back to. Explain the progress you’ve made since your last check-in and ask your manager questions like:

  • “How much progress have you seen from me in these areas?”
  • “What are the biggest things still holding me back?”
  • “How have our team and company needs changed since I drafted my development plan? Am I still working on the right things?”
  • “What would make you feel totally ready to advocate for me to take on more responsibility?”

Then, map out next steps you’ll take, as well as actions for your boss (e.g., getting you access to more training or planting the seeds for your advancement with higher-ups).